A surprise success in moderately wide release - "Amazing Grace," the Samuel Goldwyn-distributed (in association with Roadside Attractions) biopic about British abolitionist William Wilberforce - graced an otherwise-quiet weekend for independent/specialty films on the indieWIRE Box Office Tracking Report (iWBOT) by grossing $4.05 million at 791 theaters for a $5,126 average. That debut not only was good for fourth on the iWBOT but was strong enough to rank the film in last weekend's Top Ten grossers overall, ahead of such far bigger releases as "Because I Said So," "Hannibal Rising" and "Dreamgirls." ThinkFilm's light-spirited French romance, Daniele Thompson's "Avenue Montaigne," again finished first on the iWBOT by averaging $10,376 at its two Manhattan theaters, the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza, down more than 40% from the previous four-day-holiday weekend's $18,839 figure.
The iWBOT is based on per-theater averages reported by Rentrak Theatrical, the complete indieWIRE BOT weekly chart is available here at indieWIRE.com
New Yorker Films' African political drama, Abderrahmane's Mali-set "Bamako," crept up to second from third by grossing $8,516 at New York's Film Forum, although down from the previous $12,842. And although Sony Pictures Classics' German political thriller, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others," slipped from second to third when its average dropped - to $7,608 from $13,713 - after jumping to 58 engagements from 32, it stands to be a big, big winner after receiving an Oscar on Sunday as Best Foreign-Language Film.
"It couldn't happen at a better time in the life of the picture," said Michael Barker, Sony Classics' co-president, of the Oscar win. "We'll be at 100-150 prints this Friday and the following week an even larger number. And one thing I'm really excited about is I received a newspaper article about German films performing in the U.S. and it said in its third week it's ahead of 'Run Lola Run.' That's a good sign for the picture." The hyperkinetic 1999 action film "Lola," also distributed by Sony Classics, has been hailed for carving a U.S. niche for young German filmmakers. It grossed $7.3 million; "Lives of Others" is at $1.3 million in its third week.
This week, "Lives of Others" moves into a third tier of art-friendly cities - Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, Austin, Detroit, Honolulu, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, St. Louis and Richmond. It also expands in the Bay Area, southern Florida, the tri-state area around metropolitan New York and suburban L.A. "There's a lot of life left in this film," Barker said.
In "Amazing Grace's" William Wilberforce, who lived from 1759-1833, the producer - mogul Philip Anschutz's Bristol Bay Productions - and chief distributor, Goldwyn, seem to have come up with the right man for a biopic at the right time. Immensely important to the British, Wilberforce was a deeply religious Anglican and Parliament member who led a crusade against the slave trade. He also helped found the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and spoke out against vice. Anschutz's sister production company, Walden Media, produced "Ray."
"He's a gigantic hero who's unknown here," said Meyer Gottlieb, Goldwyn's president. "We did a lot of grassroots work on the film. Dealing with a 'faith' audience, we screened for the lay audience and the ministry to get them to see it and talk about it. And it paid off. Exit polls show 90% said they'd recommend it to friends and family." Goldwyn also screened for humane societies. The "Amazing Grace" website encourages churches to participate in an effort to end modern-day slavery and for others to support Wilberforce University, a 151-year-old African-American college in Wilberforce, Ohio, near Dayton.
"We feel we needed 350-400 screens to engage the faith-based audience and another 300 for the commercial audience," Gottlieb said. "We went into theaters that wouldn't be in the first go-round for a limited release."
The only other new releases in the Top Twenty were romantic comedies that were nonstarters: a well-reviewed vehicle for James McAvoy from Picturehouse called "Starter for 10" and Heather Graham's latest flop, the poorly reviewed "Gray Matters" from Yari Film Group. The first opened on 20 screens and averaged $1,857; the latter on 15 and averaged $1,699.
With Oscars over the two best films in a position to benefit next week are Fox Searchlight's 11th-ranked "Last King of Scotland," for which Forest Whitaker received the Best Actor nod as Idi Amin, and Miramax's 20th-ranked "The Queen." Many thought the Oscar telecast, indeed, felt like a coronation of Helen Mirren, who won as Best Actress for portraying Queen Elizabeth II.
Elliott Slutzky, Miramax's executive vice president for general sales, said he doesn't know how much more box-office life the film has in it after 22 weeks but is sure of one thing. Its major-category nominations - for actress, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay - were very good for it. It increased overall gross from $35 million to $53 million between the nominations announcement on Jan 23rd and the Oscars telecast.
"I sent out a letter to exhibitors showing how the gross changed before the (major) nominations and afterward for our films 'Good Will Hunting,' 'Shakespeare in Love,' 'Cider House Rules,' 'Chocolat,' 'In the Bedroom' and 'Finding Neverland' and that we expected to do the same," he said.
Overall, the number of titles on the iWBOT declined to 42 from the previous weekend's 48. Total gross stayed solid, however, from the previous four-day weekend - down to $10.17 million from $10.77 million, thanks to "Amazing Grace" picking up some steam lost by worn-out Oscar nominees. The per-screen average of $2,494 at 4,076 screens was almost exactly the same as the previous weekend's average at 4,317 screens. Next weekend will show how Oscar wins affected "The Queen," "Last King of Scotland," "The Lives of Others" and Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth," plus will tell if Craig Brewer's Paramount Vantage-distributed "Black Snake Moan" has much bite when it opens wide.
While comparisons are imperfect, because it can be somewhat arbitrary deciding what films qualify for iWBOT inclusion, overall gross on the iWBOT chart is down slightly from this time last year - $111.41 million compared to $115.28 million.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post.
indieWIRE:BOT tracks independent/specialty releases compiled from Rentrak Theatrical, which collects studio reported data as well as box-office figures from North American theatre locations. To submit information about your film to Rentrak, please email firstname.lastname@example.org